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Journey back in time with visit to Lake George area forts

Summer on Lake George

Journey back in time with visit to Lake George area forts

Experience the 18th century at Fort William Henry or Fort Ticonderoga
Journey back in time with visit to Lake George area forts
A guide fires off his musket as Braydon Mootz, 5, and father Justin watch at Fort William Henry, in Lake George, May 30, 2019.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Paul Stillman stood beside a 900-pound bronze field gun atop Fort William Henry, dressed as a provincial soldier. 

After ordering a fellow reenactor to load the cannon, Stillman surveyed the group of spectators. He singled out 5-year-old Braydon Mootz of Queensbury, who peered at him shyly, holding tight to his father’s leg. 

“Usually we have a small boy up here about your size. He would be called a powder monkey,” Stillman said. “You would carry my powder horn. Your job would be to prime each of the guns around the entire perimeter of the fort.” 

On that Thursday in late May, Stillman served as the powder monkey while Braydon watched wide-eyed from a safe distance. The cannon was lit, there was the boom of an explosion, an eruption of fire from the barrel and a billow of white smoke that obscured the view of the mountains beyond. Braydon insisted he was not afraid. 

History is brought to vivid life at two forts in the Lake George Region: Fort William Henry and Fort Ticonderoga. Both destinations offer visitors the opportunity to step back in time to the 18th century and to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding countryside.  

Fort William Henry

Fort William Henry was a British fort built in 1755 on the southern end of Lake George. Its purpose was to serve as a staging ground for attacks against French entrenchments and to protect important inland waterways. Built in 44 days by 2,000 men working 16-hour shifts, the fort was only in use for two years before it was burned by the French. Rebuilt in the 1950s, it now welcomes visitors eager to experience what life was like at a wilderness outpost in the 1750s. 

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“When you first think of Lake George, you think of a tourist town, you think of the lake, you think of the steamboats. However, you don’t realize the history that is embedded here,” said Kyle Durkee, assistant to the fort’s director. “We had the Battle of Lake George, which is the first instance in which men from these colonies turned back a European force. Then we also had the siege of Fort William Henry, and then the massacre [of the surrendered British] that happened. These events that occured are so remarkable.” 

Visitors who enter the fort are in for anything but a dry history lesson. Muskets and cannons are fired, the bangs and booms echoing off the fort’s wooden walls. Reenactors dressed in period-appropriate attire tell the soldiers’ stories as if they were their own. 

Guests are invited to explore all three floors of the barracks, where there are a variety of exhibits. There are displays that hold artifacts unearthed at the site, including axe heads, a drill bit and a child’s clay marbles. Narrow wooden bunks like the ones the soldiers slept on are on display, along with exhibits that show what foods they ate, what women and children did at the fort and what life was like on the frontier. There are also Native American artifacts on exhibit, including stone tools and pottery, as well as a replica of a longhouse. 

Visit Fort William Henry

Where: 48 Canada Street, Lake George
Hours: Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. through November
Admission price: Adults: $19.50; Seniors $15.00; Children 5-15: $8.00. Ghost tours are an additional fee and a reservation is required. 
More info: fwhmuseum.com

In the parade ground, a courtyard in the center of the fort, children can try their hand at archery, take part in an archeological dig, and participate in the King’s Army March. For the march, the new recruits are issued a uniform and a pretend musket and have a chance to drill with a guide. 

Down a long, sloping passageway is the fort’s artillery room, where cannonballs, boxes of muskets and fragments of exploded cannons can be seen. 

An underwater archeology exhibit shows what’s lurking in the nearby lake’s depths.

“You may be sailing on top of Lake George not realizing what’s underneath Lake George. Underneath Lake George is a sunken fleet. America’s oldest battleship is there,” Durkee said. 

Human remains were discovered by archeologists doing excavation work at the fort in the 1950s. Unearthed were five men and four heads, according to Durkee. Likely soldiers, all had gunshot wounds, he said. The bones are no longer on display, but a lifesize image of them is stretched out in the fort’s crypt, where the bodies once rested. 

High above, from the top of the barracks, the views of Lake George and the Adirondack mountains are stunning. With a bit of imagination, visitors can envision swarms of French troops approaching the fort by boat and digging their trenches in the surrounding land.

More: Your guide to summer on Lake George

“Every time you come here, you learn something else, whether it’s talking to a guide here, whether it’s going to a different exhibit, you experience something else,” Durkee said. 

New for 2019 is an Alexander Hamilton exhibit, which will run through September.  

Fort Ticonderoga

Originally known as Fort Carillon, Fort Ticonderoga stands just North of Lake George, on the southern end of Lake Champlain. It was built by the French to oversee the portage between the two lakes and played an important role during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

Fort Ticonderoga fell into ruin in the 1800s, but since has been restored and has evolved into a destination with many attractions. 

“I think most people do think of this place as this incredible fortress, this military site that saw epic conflict that defined the 18th century and the period from which our nation was born, but connected to that we have so many other experiences,” said Beth Hill, the fort’s president and CEO.

CARL HEILMAN II/Fort TiconderogaCARL HEILMAN II
Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga’s grounds encompass 2,000 acres of land, including Mount Defiance, two miles of Lake Champlain shoreline, and a country estate with apple orchards and gardens. There is so much to see and do that general admission tickets are good for two consecutive days. 

Weapons demonstrations, offered daily, are one of the fort’s most popular attractions.

“It’s so spectacular and so visceral, with the smells and the sound, and then you’re standing there overlooking this incredible view over Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains,” Hill explained. 

Battle reenactments tell the story of long ago conflicts, with horses galloping across the landscape and armies vying for the land.

“Visitors are just totally immersed in this incredible storytelling on a grand scale across our whole property,” Hill said. 

Visit Fort Ticonderoga

Where: 102 Fort Ti Road, Ticonderoga
Hours: Open daily, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. through October
Admission price: Seniors (65+) $22; Adults (16+) $24; Youth (5-15) $12; Children (4 and under) free. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days. Boat cruises and special programs are an additional fee.
More info: fortticonderoga.org

The fort also offers narrated, 75-minute boat tours on Lake Champlain. In addition to providing amazing views of the Green and Adirondack mountains, passengers get a peek below the lake’s surface. The tour boat is equipped with sonar, which reveals shipwrecks at the lake’s bottom. Sunset cruises are offered in July and August. 

Tours of the fort and its grounds happen 14 times a day. They range from a historical overview to a guided stroll through gardens originally used to feed armies that inhabited the fort. The gardens eventually became pleasure gardens for the country estate located on the property. Produce grown there now ends up on plates in the fort’s cafe.

Fort Ticonderoga’s living history program offers an immersive experience. 

“People can step into a tailor shop and learn about how armies were outfitted, where the fabrics came from, how they were made. Our staff is making the uniforms. Same thing in the shoe shop, where we make 18th-century footwear that our staff wear,” Hill said.

A hike or drive up Mount Defiance is also included with each entry ticket. 

“We have a beautiful picnic pavilion and the views are so stunning of this incredible region that is known as America’s most historic landscape,” Hill said. 

More: Your guide to summer on Lake George

“Mount Defiance: Witness to History” tours are held daily.

New this season is a Voyage New France family program that highlights happenings in 1758. Families are given a brochure that outlines different activities throughout the site. 

“They can go to the tailor shop and learn how to make a little French cap that they can wear, or they can go to the shoe shop and touch the leather and work with our shoemakers, or they can go to the garden and help soldiers plant and learn about that, or they can go meet our oxen, Mick and Mack, and help out with them,” Hill detailed. 

With 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, there is plenty going on at the fort even when it rains. Demonstrations and tours go on no matter what the weather, but boat tours are cancelled during bad storms. 

“We are definitely a good rainy-day option for people who are on Lake George looking for things to do when it’s not the perfect day,” Hill said. 

Reach freelance writer Kelly de la Rocha at [email protected] 

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